Fresher Bullshit

An article by Jim Holt in the New Yorker’s Critics at Large column called “Say Anything” looks at Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit, which I mentioned on February 25, 2005 and Laura Penny’s Your Call is Important to Us, which I mentioned on June 14, 2005. It goes into Simon Blackburn’s new book Truth: A Guide and a broad discussion of modern theories of truth and meaning. It’s readable and useful. (I found this article through Arts & Letters Daily).

There is an overview of Richard Rorty’s views about truth:

What makes him so formidable is the clarity and eloquence of his case against truth and, by implication, against the Western philosophical tradition. Our minds do not “mirror” the world, he says. The idea that we could somehow stand outside our own skins and survey the relationship between our thoughts and reality is a delusion. Language is an adaptation, and the words we use are tools. There are many competing vocabularies for talking about the world, some more useful than others, given human needs and interests. None of them, however, correspond to the Way Things Really Are. Inquiry is a process of reaching a consensus on the best way of coping with the world, and “truth” is just a compliment we pay to the result. Rorty is fond of quoting the American pragmatist John Dewey to the effect that the search for truth is merely part of the search for happiness. He also likes to cite Nietzsche’s observation that truth is a surrogate for God. Asking of someone, “Does he love the truth?”, Rorty thinks, is like asking, “Is he saved?” In our moral reasoning, he says, we no longer worry about whether our conclusions correspond to the divine will; so in the rest of our inquiry we ought to stop worrying about whether our conclusions correspond to a mind-independent reality.

Do Rorty’s arguments offer aid and comfort to bullshitters? Blackburn thinks so. Creating a consensus among their peers is something that hardworking laboratory scientists try to do. But it is also what creationists and Holocaust deniers do. Rorty insists that, even though the distinction between truth and consensus is untenable, we can distinguish between “frivolous” and “serious.” Some people are “serious, decent, and trustworthy”; others are “unconversable, incurious, and self-absorbed.” Blackburn thinks that the only way to make this distinction is by reference to the truth: serious people care about it, whereas frivolous people do not. Yet there is another possibility that can be extrapolated from Rorty’s writings: serious people care not only about producing agreement but also about justifying their methods for producing agreement. (This is, for example, something that astronomists do but astrologers don’t.) That, and not an allegiance to some transcendental notion of truth, is the Rortian criterion that distinguishes serious inquirers from bullshitters.

I have read about Rorty; I haven’t read him. The Wikipedia entry refers to several of his important books. The Winnipeg Public Library only has three including a newly acquired book – the 2002 paperback reprint of Against Bosses, Against Oligarchies : A Conversation with Richard Rorty – still in processing. His recent writing has turned to politics.
I found several things on the Web. The introductory essay in Rorty’s 1982 collection of essays Consequences of Pragmatism is on the Web – see Platonists, Positivists and Pragmatists. Rorty identifies himself with the pragmatists. The Platonists include mystics, idealists, religious thinkers, and anyone who believes in a hidden or transcendental reality. The positivists are empirical and scientific, but they seem to be looking for a single vision of the truth. Foundationalist and analytic philosophers – Blackburn and Grayling are two writing popular books, Bertrand Russell was another – are positivists in this way of thinking. The pragmatists – and I would say that existentialists and postmodernists fit here – claim to interested in finding principles for right living and justice without grand theories of God or Nature. Joshua Knobe’s interview of Rorty has an informal discussion of political correctness and the abuses of postmodernism in American academic literary circles. A site called erraticimpact has a database of links to papers by or about Rorty.


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